Immigrant families in “Shang-Chi”

Editor’s note: spoiler alert for the entire film.

It took 25 films, but Marvel finally got me to cry. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the latest outing in the franchise, makes a definitive statement on the nature of immigrant families, particularly the expectations regarding how American families stay connected to their roots and how their returns home are treated. Specifically, two immigrant stories are featured prominently in the film: Shang-Chi’s escape to America, and Ying Li’s immigration to Wenwu’s stronghold away from Ta Lo.

After the death of his wife, Ying Li, at the hands of the Iron Gang, Xu Wenwu, the antagonist and longtime bearer of the Ten Rings, begins to train his son, Xu Shang-Chi, to help him in his quest for power. Shang-Chi begins this training at age seven and is assigned his first mission at age 14, the first step in Wenwu’s plan to install Shang-Chi as his top lieutenant in the Ten Rings. It’s important to note here that Wenwu is not interested in Shang-Chi’s emotional turmoil following Li’s murder or that he is the age of a first-grader when the downright brutal training begins. Rather Wenwu is solely focused on a patriarchal father-centric view of the family, where the father “provides” everything to his wife and children, and in return, his family owes him their allegiance. For Wenwu, his family is safe when they’re safe physically, though not necessarily emotionally.

Simultaneously, second-generation Asian-Americans’ mental health is chronically undersupported. According to SOVA, an online informational forum run by the University of Pittsburgh, “most Asian immigrant parents interviewed in one study felt that adolescents don’t seek counseling because of the ‘shame’ of having a mental illness and the effect it can have on their education and career.” This stigma is implicitly reflected in Wenwu’s attitude toward his son; Shang-Chi’s mental health is irrelevant because it distracts from the ultimate goal of getting revenge for Li, and later, bringing Li back.

The primary conflict of the film centers around the latter: convinced that his dead wife is magically sealed away in her home village for eloping with Wenwu, the father recruits Shang-Chi and his sister, Xu Xialing, to conquer the village and free Li. Wenwu’s ultimate goal here isn’t a cathartic understanding of his wife’s death, but a reunification of the classical nuclear family: father, mother, son and daughter.

But Wenwu’s plan fails to account for the extended family that lives in Ta Lo itself. While he is not related to them by blood, he is by marriage. 

Within my own experience growing up in a semi-Pakistani home, being related by marriage is often indistinguishable from being married by blood. To be fair to Wenwu, however, he was rejected from joining Ta Lo in the first place because of his possession of the rings and past as a decorated war criminal.

However, Wenwu’s rejection is not evidence of Ta Lo’s intolerance. Katy, Shang-Chi’s friend, is defined by her Americaness and is clearly not of Ta Lo’s family, yet is welcomed with open arms as due to the merest association with Shang-Chi and Xialing. Ditto for Trevor Slattery, the one-time Mandarin from Iron Man 3 imprisoned by Wenwu for daring to impersonate (however unintentionally) the Ten Rings’ founder. Dragged along on the heroes’ quest, his presence is not questioned in the slightest on the grounds that he helped the faceless flying pillow that is Morris return home. He too, is family by association, not by blood.

Within Ta Lo, we also see the loss and legacy of Li fully explored. Up until this point, Shang-Chi had only been using the martial arts he learned under his father’s tutelage. This fighting style is exemplified in both Shang-Chi and Xialing as aggressive and violent by the opening stance, which features clenched hands. But in Ta Lo, Jiang Nan, Shang-Chi’s aunt, teaches him the style of his mother and her village. This style is more open and relaxed, and relies on the user knowing themself. Where Wenwu’s style is one of brutality and cold survival, Li’s is one of emotional introspection and self-awareness, a tenderness that Shang-Chi has not experienced from his father. 

These two conceptions of the family — the limited, nuclear one and the expansive, extended one — come to a head in the film’s final act, where the demon that Wenwu freed thinking he would free his wife fights the Great Protector Dragon of Ta Lo. Here is the ultimate symbolic clash: the spirit of the true immigrant homeland in Ta Lo fights the bastardized corruption that is Wenwu’s conception of the perfect wife. And ultimately, Shang-Chi defeats the demon by synthesizing the power of the Ten Rings (his father’s legacy) with the power of Ta Lo (his mother’s legacy), staying true to both of them in his own way.

But can Wenwu truly be blamed? While he does enforce a rigid family structure focused on obedience to the father over mutual respect and support, he also does so with no support himself. He cannot rely on grandparents or aunts and uncles to keep things going after his wife dies as he has none. He has no village — he is isolated from any social and cultural world he could rely on to teach his children.

Similarly, Asian-American immigrant fathers feel obligated to maintain their culture and ideals of filial respect but are doing so in a different culture with different ideals. It is a balance I have seen myself, in my own family and in other Pakistani families. In a sea of nuclear families, they adopt the nuclear family structure, but have to walk a fine line between supporting their family emotionally and enforcing discipline among the ranks. Wenwu’s immigration story is one of misguided good intent; he fails Shang-Chi and Xialing not because he is a bad father but because he does not know how else to raise them. He does not have the support of Ta Lo, and thus fails where the village succeeds.

And Ta Lo succeeds through an open, hands-off approach. The returning immigrants are not judged on their level of respect, or how obedient they are. They are welcomed simply for being family, loved not for what they do but for who they are. Ta Lo does not dirty itself with the niceties of what clothes their children wear, or what language they speak, or what their job is. Where Wenwu derides Katy as Shang-Chi’s “American friend,” Ta Lo draws no such distinction. A family’s job is to love, not to obey, and Ta Lo does just that.

So I cried in the middle row of Theater 1 of the Movies at Meadville. I cried for the families broken by fathers who do not know how to do the heavy lifting of an entire village. I cried for the children who do not know that families can be capable of non judgemental love. And I cried because I do not know where I stand in this turmoil at all.